Ellen Nash-Martin works with ebony and ivory. Not organic materials, but plastic. She does woodworking, too. She can spray on a mean coat of high-gloss lacquer.
As the Baltimore County school system's only piano technician, Nash-Martin is the magic behind the melodies of 553 instruments in use in classrooms and auditoriums. She calls them the "tanks" of musical education.
From her little-known workshop in a dim corner of the Inverness Center in Dundalk, Nash-Martin, a former music education major who plays piano and organ, oversees a geriatric troop of pianos, many of which have been in circulation since the 1950s.
"Some of them are at a point where I can get them to play again, but I can't put a bundle of money into them and then have something major happen to them," says Nash-Martin, the county's only piano technician.
Outside the grand piano-size door that protects Nash-Martin's office from vandals - but not mice - are about 30 upright pianos that have reached that point. Their next stop is the auction block.
One sports cutouts of dancing lambs and flower baskets, reminders of kindergarten sing-alongs.
Many of the pianos Nash-Martin sees - the ones she can fix - suffer from broken bass bridges, gouged and graffiti-marked woodwork, chipped or missing key covers, and lazy hammers.
For these ailments, Nash-Martin prescribes various cures. Her workshop is equipped with saws, sanders, and drills she uses to sculpt new pieces for her pianos. Piano bridges, which hold pegs that align strings, can splinter over time. Nash-Martin prepares new bridges or recaps old ones with layered wood. She resets the pegs and strings.
Nash-Martin uses a combination of wood-filler and epoxy to cover scratches and pockmarks that mar the pianos. She refinishes them in a booth outfitted with a spray gun that she loads with tinted lacquer.
At one work station, a row of elaborate parts awaits her, among them some hammers, which are found in the piano's action, or moving parts. The felt on these hammers becomes grooved from striking the strings. Nash-Martin files away "dead" felt in order to bring the hammer heads to a fresh point. "That way, the striking point on the string is more exact," she explains.
Working alone, Nash-Martin, who learned to be a piano technician at a school in Chautauqua, N.Y., and later honed her skills at a piano shop in Lisbon, Md., cuts her workday solitude with bursts of music from the pianos she fixes: she test-drives every piano.
Nash-Martin figures that during her five years as a technician, she has seen about half the pianos in the system. She has found mouse nests and baby mice inside pianos, as well as gum and candy wrappers, human hair and lots of coins. She says she can tell where a piano has been by the kind of trash she finds inside.
She cringes when she gets a piano that has been sitting in a school cafeteria. Steam from pots of boiling water and misdirected dishwater spray can be deadly to the instrument. Because cafeterias adjoin auditoriums at several elementary schools, many pianos end up in the lunchroom.
Some of the pianos Nash-Martin has revitalized came to her from the recesses of school storage rooms. Covered by aquariums and boxes of books, pianos can simply disappear. "Only the janitor knows where they are," Nash-Martin says.